Monday, December 5, 2011

Pre-Code Parade: the world of Warren William

Judging by his career arc, you could argue that pre-Code cinema made Warren William a star, while the coming of Code enforcement by the Breen Office late in 1934 doomed him to decline. Joining Warner Bros. late in 1931, after having briefly worked the movies nearly a decade earlier, the 37 year old William rose like a rocket through 1932 from character roles to stardom, arguably peaking in that year and remaining a top star for at least another two years before slowly descending into B-moviedom as the star of Columbia's Lone Wolf series and one of the overqualified supporting cast of Universal's The Wolf Man. Turner Classic Movies noted William's 117th birthday on December 2 (he died in 1948) with a daytime festival of his films, several of which allowed me to trace the step-by-step rise of the man many deem one of the definitive pre-Code stars.

Appropriately enough for an actor typed as a charismatic rogue, William started 1932 by virtually stealing a film from its intended star.  Archie Mayo's UNDER EIGHTEEN was designed, the publicity tells us, to launch Marian Marsh as a top-billed star. Perhaps best remembered today as Trilby, the victim of John Barrymore's Svengali (also directed by Mayo) Marsh got a high-profile push from Warners throughout 1931 as a prelude to her debut as a leading lady. In Under Eighteen Marsh is a teenager (the actress herself was just 18) scarred or scared by her sister's unhappy marriage into a precocious cynicism and a contempt for marriage, despite her boyfriend's insistence that you can't predict or assume what'll come around the corner in your own life. Her brother-in-law is a bum more interested in billiards than working, until he and his wife have to move back in with her family. Traumatized by a fight that ends with the hubby hitting her sister offscreen, Marsh takes it upon herself to facilitate a divorce by raising the necessary $200 in legal fees. Neither her boss at the clothing store (she's a seamstress) nor her boyfriend are willing to give or loan the money, so she takes a desperate chance to get the dough from Raymond Harding (William), a high-living Broadway producer who mistook her for a fashion model when he visited the store. Marsh takes the elevator to a pre-Code wild party by a penthouse pool, -- someone throws a string of pearls into the pool and practically everyone dives in after them -- is made a little tipsy, and is propositioned by William before the boyfriend (Regis Toomey) storms in and punches William in the chest. "You hit rather low," William remarks before collapsing. Disaster impends before a series of lucky cop-outs close the picture: William recovers and sends Marsh the $200 -- he had actually suffered food poisoning; the boyfriend had already decided to give her the money; and another $200 from her boss arrives moments later. But none of it is necessary: her sister and brother-and-law are reconciled after he wins more than a grand in a billiards tournament, finally proving the boyfriend's point about not presuming the worst. It's a silly finish and the film clearly deflates after William, fourth-billed here, leaves it. There's a charge, of menace or something else, between him and Marsh that is absent from her scenes with the callow, self-pitying Toomey -- the attitude seemed to come with the actor, since it cost him Loretta Young in She Had To Say Yes, a prime piece of pre-Code work in its own right in which the usually underwhelming Lyle Talbot got the girl. As for William and Marsh, Warners promptly set to work refining the chemistry that sparked briefly here.

For Roy Del Ruth's BEAUTY AND THE BOSS, released four months later, William has moved up to second billing behind Marsh, but his is really the dominant character of the film. He's Baron Josef von Ulrich, a Vienna-based captain of finance who doesn't know the meaning of Depression. We see him give dictation to his secretary, (Mary Doran) despite the distractions of her blatant beauty and her slow shorthand. Flustered, he first issues orders dictating more modest dress for his female employees, then fires Doran -- and then promptly invites her out on a date. The Baron apparently has a small dispersed harem of secretaries turned lovers -- in a running gag, one of them never seems to leave her bathtub. He wants both beauty and efficiency, but doesn't think them possible in the same package. Enter Susie Sachs (Marsh), a meek, modestly dressed little "churchmouse" who proves unexpectedly to be a superwoman of office organization who soon has the Baron's already high-powered operations running at hyperspeed. She's the woman of his office dreams and a fit mate as well, if he'd only realize that there's a beautiful woman under the drab trappings who's obviously crushing on him. His brother and uncle see it and encourage her not only to glamorize herself but to compete with her predecessors, not just by manipulating Doran out of the picture but by flirting with them. This is another giddy power romance about a nervy girl falling for an omnipotent man, and the script unleashes William, allowing him full display of what was probably his most attractive attribute during the pre-Code era: his drive. Pre-Code audiences responded to confident mastery, the ideal alternative to Depression despair, and William at his height radiated mastery, whether as an aristocratic financier or as the shadier sort of character for which he became best known. Marsh responds to his challenge with a hyperactive performance that nearly matches William's charisma. Classic horror fans will be amused by the convergence here not only of William and Marsh but also David (Jonathan Harker) Manners and Frederick (Baron Frankenstein) Kerr as William's mischievous relatives. Overall it's a highly enjoyable comedy that climaxes, I dare say, with the most symbolically orgasmic dictation of a letter the screen would see for decades to come.

Sometime in 1932, Marian Marsh dropped out, quitting Warners and heading for Europe. She worked at a slower pace thereafter and retired in the 1940s, living until 2006. But if Marsh didn't pan out for the studio, William did.

Warren William has a marvelous personality. Dashing, handsome and with a reckless gleam in his sparkling dark eyes, he wins and holds the attention of his audience, making his triumphs their triumphs, his setbacks, their setbacks.
- Dubuque Telegraph-Herald & Times-Journal, June 27, 1932.

Even when he's the unambiguous hero of the picture, there's something of the predator about William, perhaps reflecting something not necessarily predatory but survival-minded that seemed right for crisis times. There was something similar in the "hard-boiled" attitude of so many Thirties heroes and heroines. Warren was a little too flamboyant to do hard-boiled (though he did sort of play Sam Spade in a names-changed version of The Maltese Falcon) but he could do the comic mountebank, the charismatic schemer with a gift of gab, like a champion. A case in point is Alfred E. Green's THE DARK HORSE, a political comedy that proves hilariously prescient without even intending to predict the future. The film takes place in a mirror-universe U.S. in which the Democratic and Republican parties exist, but real power in an unnamed state is contested between the Progressive and Conservative parties. When the Progressive state convention is deadlocked between two candidates for governor, one faction tries to divide-and-conquer by proposing a randomly-selected supporter of their opponent as a compromise "dark horse" candidate. The other side figures out what's up, but to spite their rivals throw all their support to the dark horse, securing him the nomination. The nominee is Zachary Hicks (Guy Kibbee in his star-making role), a small-town boob who proposes abolishing capital punishment six months after the bill was signed. The Progressives despair of their predicament, but a surprisingly aggressive secretary (Bette Davis, the next "sensational discovery") has the answer. She was planted in the party office by master campaign organizer Hal S. Blake, whom she now touts as the Progressives' only hope to sell Hicks to the masses. The only thing they need to do to secure his services is bail him out of jail -- he's there for non-support of his estranged wife. The Progressives find Blake already rallying his fellow prisoners on Hicks's behalf, and he's non-stop from there. 21st century viewers will shudder with recognition when Blake tells the party that rather than hide Hicks's utter idiocy, he'll exploit it to the maximum, portraying him as an "Honest, Simple and True" ordinary joe -- a literal "Hicks From the Sticks." Fortunately, the competition is no more intelligent or scrupulous. One of the funniest moments in the picture comes after Blake has coached Hicks for his first debate by making him memorize a short campaign speech by Abraham Lincoln. If anyone recognizes the rhetoric, of course, the campaign will be screwed, but the Conservative candidate gets to speak first -- and plagiarizes from the exact same speech. While this threatens to leave Hicks with nothing to say, Blake saves the day by jumping to the podium and accusing the Conservative of blatant plagiarism. From there, the plot threads converge as Blake struggles to rid himself of the ex so he can marry the Davis character, Hicks stupidly escorts the ex into Blake's office after an assistant (Frank McHugh) had said he was out of town, and the ex ultimately plots a set-up, luring Hicks into a strip-poker game that will ruin him when tipped-off reporters arrive, if Blake can't ride to the rescue himself. Dark Horse is the best and funniest (and most pre-Code) of the films reviewed here, with Kibbee's personable moronism nearly stealing the picture from a fire-breathing William, with a dues-paying Davis providing able support. The Pre-Code Play of the film comes when McHugh is guiding Kibbee to safety after escaping the strip-poker trap. Caught in a barbed-wire fence, Kibbee's union suit is torn to bloody shreds. Fortunately, McHugh has an old-fashioned sleeping gown in a suitcase. As Kibbee slips it over his head, McHugh remarks, "Now you're sure to get the Ku Klux Klan vote!" Guy Kibbee deserves his own Pre-Code Parade float; he so convincingly establishes himself as a bourgeois bumpkin here that he got to play Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt two years later. For this one I can show you a trailer; skipjackturner uploaded it to YouTube.

Before 1932 was over Warners was loaning William out to other studios, such was the demand for his type.

M-G-M borrowed the "new idol" (as another ad called William) and top-billed him in Edgar Selwyn's SKYSCRAPER SOULS, an institutional soap-opera on the Grand Hotel model. Selwyn's film is a Deco epic in which the mighty Seacoast National Bank tower dwarfs the Empire State Building and is virtually a character in the film. William is David Dwight, the man who built the building, and while the power and position may have made William an obvious choice for the role, M-G-M seemed to miss the point of his stardom. Rather than a comedy, Skyscraper Souls is a tragedy, with some inane slapstick from Norman Foster (he keeps crashing into stuff and people) as occasional comic relief. It opens with the William character on the ropes, with added gray in his hair, and it almost immediately feels wrong. David Dwight behaves erratically, first desperately soliciting funds to save the building from creditors, then turning thoughtlessly against his own partners in a scheme to inflate Seacoast stock and sell short before its value crashes. Nearly all the characters in the picture get caught in the mania for the stock, as if they'd all forgotten what happened in real life just three years earlier, and many are ruined. Meanwhile, William must play the predator, attempting to intoxicate and seduce an office girl (Maureen O'Sullivan) while his own infatuated secretary, the girl's superior and mentor, seethes with potentially lethal jealousy. There's a pointless recklessness to William's behavior here that doesn't seem right -- the drive that animates his Warners roles is largely missing -- and the seriousness with which the picture usually goes about its business really lets the air out of the William persona. The movie's always terrific to look at, but if it proves anything it's that Warren William was one of the great comic actors of the pre-Code era. He gives a strong performance on the picture's own terms, but he's only a shadow of the Warners Warren William, while the grim climax of Skyscraper Souls may have marked the beginning of the end of his dominance of the screen. A look at William's filmography, however, suggests that some triumphs were still to come,  -- his casting as Julius Caesar in Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra isn't really a bad idea in context -- and I still haven't seen some of his best work from his wonder-year of 1932 like The Mouthpiece and The Match King. With luck, this won't be my last word on Warren William, and I hope I've given readers enough of a taste that they'll give him a try while I wait for my next chance.


Grand Old Movies said...

As a Warren William fan, I really enjoyed your post and your take on his films presented on TCM. I actually like him in 'Skyscraper Souls'; he has several grandiose speeches that he carries off well. But William at his best can be seen in his performances in 'The Mouthpiece,' 'The Match King,' and 'The Mind Reader' (titles w/'m' in them seen to presage well for William!), in which his energy and his drive, as you mention, take full flight. He's also hilariously unscrupulous in 'Employees' Entrance,' in which he ruthlessly keeps a department store afloat in the Depression; his character's determination to keep his staff employed must have resonated w/Depression audiences. I dearly hope Warner Archives will consider releasing more of his films soon on DVD; WW is an actor who deserves major recognition.

Cliff Aliperti said...

Great article tracking the rise of Warren William, thank you for posting it! One oversight on TCM's part was skipping over The Mouthpiece (should have aired just ahead of The Dark Horse) which gained Warren wide acclaim and was most responsible for setting off his personal peak of pre-code stardom.

Erich Kuersten said...

Thanks for the list which kind of gives me a decent rationale to not see Under 18 even though it's on my que. I did fairly swoon over WW in the Beauty and the Boss which I'd never seen before.

The Match King and the Mind Reader are good but a little too breathless for their own good - like their speed-addled cynicism prevent them from slowing down for things like character and credibility as they race to their comeuppance climaxes. But they're prime William. Aint it a shame there's no movies made as star vehicles for towering lupine lothario industry captain types anymore?

Samuel Wilson said...

Grand: I think William is good on Skyscraper Souls's own terms, but he didn't seem as vital as in his Warners' films. Out of the films I saw, he never seemed as much the poor-man's Barrymore that I suspect Warners meant him to be initially than in the M-G-M film.

Cliff: The advertising definitely confirms your claim for The Mouthpiece as William's real breakthrough film, so I must see it. Are you listening, TCM?

Eric: I know from your own blog that you're a big WW fan, so I appreciate your comments. Under 18 is actually not bad until its last ten minutes, when it teases catastrophe only to blow it off. I appreciated seeing it alongside Beauty & the Boss because you can see WB learning how to use their new stars. And there are a lot of star slots readily filled in pre-Code days that just ain't available anymore -- though maybe one of our pudgy, stupid young men can grow into a Guy Kibbee some day.

Judy said...

Really enjoyed this posting, Samuel - you have done a great job here. I've just been lucky enough to see 'Skyscraper Souls' and liked it a lot, but then I tend to love pre-Code melodrama. I'll join the chorus of praise for 'The Mouthpiece', definitely my favourite out of the William films I've seen so far, though I also really like 'The Match King' and he has a good straight role in 'Three on a Match' where he shows he can play a noble character. Sadly none of these ever turn up on TCM in the UK, which doesn't show much 1930s stuff at all.

Back to 'Skyscraper Souls'... I think the recklessness is the core quality of William's character in this, overreaching in everything as he did in funding the building, though it might be unrealistic at times as he double-crosses everybody. Must agree that there are some unlikely plot twists, as you say, such as the way the investors all forget the real-life crash of a few years earlier so quickly! The way the building is really a character in the movie reminds me of John Barrymore's great film 'Counsellor at Law' with JB as a lawyer in another skyscraper. Anyway someone has kindly uploaded 'Skyscraper Souls' to YT in reasonably good quality, but must agree it definitely deserves a DVD release.

Samuel Wilson said...

Judy: Again, I have nothing especially negative to say about Skyscraper Souls except that, in my limited experience, William is at his best in a more comic mode. The film is a visual treat -- I'm not familiar with Selwyn's other work -- and the climactic suicide scene is stunning. As for DVD releases, Warner definitely stopped the Forbidden Hollywood series way too soon.